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Google's Doodle: Akira Yoshizawa

google doodle

The Google Doodle for March 14, 2012, honored Akira Yoshizawa, the father of modern origami, on his 101st birthday. The Doodle featured the Google logo, folded from origami (each letter folded from a single uncut sheet), decorated with origami butterflies folded from one of Yoshizawa's most famous and iconic designs. In the week or so prior to its appearance, I helped Google put this together, by designing the logo, folding the butterflies, and a few other bits and pieces of assistance. This article tells the story: of the man, and the Doodle!

About the Artist

Akira Yoshizawa (1911–2005) is widely regarded as the father of the modern origami art form. The son of a farmer, he moved to Tokyo at age 13 and became a worker in a machine shop. After several years there, he was assigned to teach geometry to the junior employees and, already having an interest in the traditional Japanese craft of paper-folding, he began to use paper-folding to teach geometric concepts. His employer supported his study of paper folding, but it grew and increased its hold upon his imagination; eventually he left his job so that he could focus on folding.

For the rest of his life, paper-folding, or as it was by then referred to, origami, was his consuming passion. Over the following decades he took a series of part-time jobs to make ends meet (including selling soup door-to-door), but his single-minded focus was the development of his art.

In the 1950s, his work began to gain recognition: first, in the pages of the Japanese picture magazine, Asahi Graf, and then, in 1954, he published his first book, Atarashi Origami Geijutsu and founded the International Origami Center in Tokyo (which continues today to promote his work and manage his estate). His work then came to the attention of the west through the efforts of Gershon Legman, including an exhibition of his works in Amsterdam in 1955.

From that initial Western exposure, his fame rapidly spread around the world. He developed a notation for the communication of origami instruction, first revealed in Atarashi Origami Geijutsu, and then in his better-known masterwork, Origami Dokuhon I (1957). His notation was subsequently adopted by Western origami authors of the early 1960s. It has now been the standard for communications of origami instruction for over 50 years.

While there were other Japanese artists who explored their country's folk art contemporaneously with Yoshizawa, it was primarily his work that inspired the world, through a combination of grace, beauty, variety, and clarity of presentation. For years he wrote, taught, and exhibited—but mostly folded. He created tens of thousands of origami works. To him, each figure, even if folded from the same basic plan, was a unique object with a unique character.

He also pioneered many of the artistic techniques used by modern-day origami artists, most notably, the technique of wet-folding, which allowed the use of thick papers with soft curves, gentle shaping, and rounded, organic forms.

Although he was the consummate artist, his work and approach was infused with the mathematical and geometric underpinnings of origami as well as a deep aesthetic sense. In a visit to New York in 1988, he said:

"My origami creations, in accordance with the laws of nature, require the use of geometry, science, and physics. They also encompass religion, philosophy, and biochemistry. Overall, I want you to discover the joy of creation by your own hand…the possibility of creation from paper is infinite."
Akira Yoshizawa in New York, 1988. Photo courtesy of OrigamiUSA. Behind his right hand is Michael Shall, OrigamiUSA's first Executive Director.

Although he struggled in his early years to gain recognition, in his last decades, he received worldwide renown and invitations from all over the world, culminating in his award in 1983 of the Order of the Rising Sun.

Personal Reminisces

I first learned of Yoshizawa in my childhood via English-language origami books, which described him as the grand master of origami, showed a few of his simpler designs, but hinted at remarkable, unbelievable artworks whose instructions, infuriatingly, did not appear anywhere. Hints were there in the photos, though; his great opus, Origami Dokuhon I, which I eventually acquired, showed folding instructions for a simple horse, but accompanied it with a photograph of an incredibly detailed and lifelike horse, along with a caption that said something along the lines of, "with a little bit more folding, you can make something like this." Throughout my own origami development, Yoshizawa was the semi-mythical, somewhat mysterious ideal to aspire to.

In 1988, I had the incredible good luck to meet him for the first time. He came to New York for the 10-year anniversary celebration of The Friends of the Origami Center of America (which was the American origami society, whose predecessor, the Origami Center of America, was founded on the model of Yoshizawa's International Origami Center). I had the opportunity to organize a panel discussion on origami diagramming standards; as here was the man who had invented origami diagramming, we leapt at the chance to invite him. He spoke for about 20 minutes on a wide range of topics, not just diagramming. In fact, what seemed to matter most to him was one's mental attitude, one's entire approach. He spoke of character, of natural qualities, of having one's "spirit within [the artwork's] folds."

panel discussion
Akira Yoshizawa addressing diagramming standardization in New York, 1988. Photo courtesy of OrigamiUSA. From left to right on the panel: Dave Brill, David Shall, Alice Gray, John Montroll, me, Akira Yoshizawa, Emiko Kruckner, Florence Temko, and Carol Ann Wilk.

I had the chance to meet him again in 1992, when I was invited to address the Nippon Origami Association at their annual meeting in Japan. During that trip, my hosts arranged for me to meet several origami artists, including the great Yoshizawa, this time at his home and studio. This was not an easy thing to arrange: at that time, there was a certain amount of ill will among some of the Japanese masters, and if it were known that you were visiting one, you might find it difficult to visit any of the others. (And let's not even get into which one you visited first.) Nevertheless, through the skillful negotiations of my host and guide, Toshi Aoyagi, an audience was arranged, and presently, I was ushered into the inner sanctum, where Yoshizawa greeted me, grinning, and then proceeded to show me box after box after drawer of the most extraordinarily folded works I had ever seen.

And then, finally, I got a glimpse of what set him apart from other origami artists: he showed me the same figure, a nursing she-wolf, folded two different ways. The first was folded in what one might call a conventional style, that is, the way every other origami artist in the world would have folded it. It was not terribly complicated; it had all the right "parts" (head, legs, tail, etc.)—but no more. And then he showed me the same design, folded his way. It was, indeed, the same basic design, but through a combination of dents, bumps, wrinkles, and molding of the paper, he had captured the subject fully. I could see not just the features of the animal: I could see its personality as well. He was not just controlling the folds of the paper; he was controlling every spec of paper—he controlled what happened between the folds.

The only origami artist I knew whose control approached that of Yoshizawa was the late, great Eric Joisel, who was also responsible for the last time I got to meet Yoshizawa. By the mid-1990s, Yoshizawa's place in the origami world was well established and he was visibly comfortable being around other folders. He knew he was the "elder statesman" of origami; he didn't have to worry about his legacy. And so, he relaxed and enjoyed the accolades and invitations that came his way. Joisel organized what was then the largest international exhibition of origami ever, held in the Carrousel du Louvre, a commercial exhibition space across from the underground entrance of the Louvre proper, and Yoshizawa was one of the honored guests at this exhibition. He was joyous as he walked around the space, and positively sparkled at the attention from origami aficionados spanning multiple generations.

yoshizawa and fan
Akira Yoshizawa at Paris-Origami in 1998 with a young fan. Photo courtesy of Diane Lang.

Legacy and Impact

Akira Yoshizawa almost single-handedly defined the 20th century art of origami, and while his contributions were many, two in particular stand out to me.

First, he broke out of the largely static repertoire of traditional designs and established a culture of development of new figures and with it, the never-ending quest to capture the inner spirit of the subject. This act essentially set the modern art of origami on its present course. Yes, there were others in Japan and elsewhere who sought to create new figures in the early part of the last century. But no one conveyed this approach to the world more effectively, in part, simply due to the value of publicity, but even more, because the works themselves displayed a beauty and life that lifted origami out of the realm of mere playthings and into a true art form.

His second, and perhaps more long-lasting contribution, was the code of instruction that he devised—the arrows, dotted and dashed lines that we now take for granted. Again, others had developed ways of expressing origami instruction, but Yoshizawa's system was so clear and compelling that it (and its derivatives) have become the standard for the worldwide dissemination of origami.

What I find most remarkable about the man and his work is his longevity as a creative force within the world of origami. This is most unusual! In art (and especially science—and origami is in some ways a science) we often see creative bursts. A person comes on the scene, performs some remarkable feats during a 5–10 year creative period, then slowly fades from view, as the next creative star burns brightly. What was novel twenty years ago now looks clunky and dated. What is remarkable about Yoshizawa's work is that figures he did ten, twenty, even thirty years ago, are still fresh, new, and living. And we can all learn from them.

When I was a young folder, eager to make my mark, Alice Gray told me about her encounter with Yoshizawa at which he showed her his cicada, and he remarked that it had taken him twenty years to design! "Hmmph!" I thought. "I don't need no twenty years to design a cicada!" And I sat down and designed one, which I became very proud of (so proud that I put it in my first book). But after a few years, I began to perceive its flaws: the body wasn't quite right, the wings weren't positioned properly, the legs looked too generic. So I set about to design another. "Now," I thought, "I've got it right." But presently, that one, too, began to display weaknesses. And so another. And in a few years more, yet another. In 2003, I attended a Japanese origami convention and during a visit to the city of Shizuoka during the cicada emergence season, I looked closely at the cicadas on the trees all around and realized once again the flaws in all that I had folded before, and set out once more. The result was my "Shizuoka Cicada, opus 445." And finally, I thought, I nailed it. But, you know, when I look at a calendar…it had been about twenty-five years since I first started working on this subject. So I only overshot him by five years, and I guess that twenty years is not too long to fold a cicada.

To Yoshizawa, the life in the folded form was paramount, and that, perhaps, is at the heart of why his work remains relevant and instructive. There was a thirty-year period—the 1970s through the 1990s—that might be called the "Golden Age" of technical folding, when origami design tools were developed that allowed the realization of undreamed-of forms of complexity. By and large, Yoshizawa remained outside of that development. And the separation was mutual: within the technical community, the focus on technological development often ignored the development of living form. An origami subject was merely a problem to be solved. Once you've folded a base with 18 legs, the problem is solved, the work is done, and the final shaping is merely an afterthought. But since the turn of the century, there has been a renewed emphasis on the finished form: technology is back in its proper place as a tool in service of an artistic goal. Yoshizawa recognized the priority of the artistic form from the very beginning, and his books, demonstrations, and exhibitions have always brought out this philosophy. His work remains an example of breathing life into the paper, as relevant for the bird-base-bird as for the 100-legged centipede. He is now gone, but his work will continue to inspire and educate folders no matter how much or little experience they have. I used to think, somewhat foolishly, that with enough time and experience, I could fold like Yoshizawa. Now, I hope that with enough time and experience, I will simply be able to fully appreciate his extraordinary work.

About the Doodle

Here's how it all came about. A few weeks before the date, I was approached by Google. I jumped at the chance: Yoshizawa was a huge figure in my own origami evolution, not to say the entire field. Google set the parameters of the design: the Google logo, of course—but to be folded with origami. They also wanted to decorate it with some of Yoshizawa's figures. I suggested his iconic butterfly, to which they readily assented.

The first design question for the logo then was, in what style? There is a traditional origami style for creating letters, in which one uses the two colors of opposite sides of the paper to create letterforms, which was my first inclination. But Google said they were interested in seeing a more 3-dimensional version of the logo, and that suggested a style based on a combination of pleats and reverse folds. I created a capital "G" in both styles for Google to evaluate.

two g's
Two versions of the Google "G", each folded from a single sheet of paper.

I already had my favorite, though: I really like the look of the pleated version, and so I was pleased when Google gave the go-ahead to proceed with that style. In fairly short order, I had designed the remaining letters of the logo.

At that point, two major efforts swung into action. One was mine: designing and folding the remaining logo letters. That was actually pretty easy. Although the crease patterns look superficially complex, the style of folding has been around for decades (it is the basis of the famous "Troublewit" magic routine), and there is a simple technique for transforming any outline into the crease pattern.

In fact, the design was not all that complicated for any of the letters (the lower-case "g" turned out to be the most complicated). To design these (or any letterform in this style), you can take a narrow strip of paper, fold it back and forth to trace the outline of the desired letter, unfold it, mark the creases, then arrange multiple copies of the strip pattern on a larger rectangle, flipping the creases for a single strip back and forth, so that the creases of the odd-numbered strips are mirror images of the creases of the even-numbered strips. The resulting crease pattern is moderately complex, and it gives a lovely 3-D form when folded, but conceptually, it is quite straightforward.

That is, it is straightforward in conception, but not necessarily straightforward to actually fold. These patterns have the property that all of their creases are mechanically linked, so that you cannot fold the creases one at a time, or a few at a time: they must all be folded at the same time. Traditional origami designs might have been complex, but individual groups of creases were separable into smaller units that could be folded individually. Crease patterns like this cannot be divided up in the same way: they are irreducibly complex, which makes them rather fun puzzles to try out.

If the reader would like to give these a try, I've reproduced the crease patterns for each of the letters below. Clicking on the links will download a PDF file for each pattern. Print them out and fold on the lines: red=valley fold, blue=mountain. And you, too, can fold your own Google Doodle.

G o o g l e

The real heavy lifting came in the second effort: getting permission. Of course, no permission was needed, other than Google's, to design and fold their logo. But if we were going to show Yoshizawa's butterflies, we needed to get permission from his estate, which meant from his wife, Kiyo Yoshizawa, who manages his affairs and his organization, the International Origami Center. Mrs. Yoshizawa does not speak English and does not use email: our work was cut out for us.

For that effort, I enlisted two people from OrigamiUSA, the American national origami association: Jan Polish and Marcio Noguchi, both of whom have been deeply involved in international origami relations. Marcio, in turn, contacted Makoto Yamaguchi, owner of Gallery Origami House in Tokyo and one of the leading figures in Japanese origami today. Yamaguchi-san made contact with Mrs. Yoshizawa and secured the necessary permission, for usage of his butterfly, for use of Yoshizawa's image in the photos in the article for the Google Doodle blog, and, most importantly, her blessing for the entire project.

Meanwhile, I designed and folded. Google wanted the letters folded in their traditional colors (or as close as we could get). I chose Canson Mi-Teintes watercolor paper, which comes in a wide range of colors so I could approximate the Google colors reasonably well. It also comes in fairly large sheets, so I could fold the letters in relatively large size (which allows a crisp appearance) and, because it is fairly stiff, it provides good contrast between the sharp creases and flat facets.

The pleated "Troublewit"-style letters allow for a deterministically computational design; in fact, the creases could be constructed using a method akin to compass-and-straightedge mathematical constructions. So the creation of the crease patterns was very fast, but that led to a problem: how to efficiently get the creases in the right place on the paper that was actually going to be folded?

Beginning a few years ago, I started to explore using an industrial laser cutter to score paper for origami crease patterns: initially using borrowed equipment at Squid Labs, courtesy of Saul Griffith, and then eventually obtaining my own system. By the time of the Google project, I had developed an efficient workflow that could take any crease pattern, process it with some custom software I'd written for Wolfram Mathematica, and turn that into a scored pattern on any sheet of paper.

So, I sic'd my scoring software onto the patterns for the Google letters, which transferred them crease patterns onto the Canson Mi-Teintes and cut out sheets of the appropriate sizes for the letters. An hour of so of folding the scored paper patterns resulted in the finished letters for the logo. And then that was followed by folding a range of butterflies from Origami Dokuhon I, Yoshizawa's 1957 masterpiece.

The Thursday before D-day was set for photography. Two folks from Google showed up and spent a few hours arranging letters and butterflies for the shoot. I have a small photography setup in my studio that I use for shooting the images on the website. Via a process vaguely reminiscent of cooking nail soup, bits and pieces of my own setup gradually got incorporated into the Google shoot: seamless backdrop, halogen light, museum mount, wire, drafting tape, glue, and more. The Googlers had fairly definite desires on the colors and sizes of butterflies, so at their request, I'd bought a pack of 100 different colors of origami paper in preparation: they picked out colors, requested sizes, and then I cut the paper to size and folded butterflies to order.

One of the fun things about photo shoots is that the preparation can take hours as the subjects are arranged, tweaked, manipulated, re-tweaked, and test shot after test shot is made; but when everything is exactly right, the photographer takes one shot, says "that's it!" and you're done! And that was the case with this shoot. It was like climbing a mountain: you work your way up toward the top, getting closer and closer, and then boom: you're there, nothing more to do.

A few shots from the photo shoot are below.

precreased paper
The precreased letters: scored by laser, then creased by hand.
Folding in progress: collapsing the lower-case g.
first draft
My first draft, and some sample butterflies.

After folding the first round, I realized I was a little bit off in the x-height of the lower case letters, so I tweaked the crease patterns so that the letters would more closely match the logo letterforms.

precreased paper
Improved letters, with better x-height.

After everything was folded, the Google Doodle team came over and we set up to shoot (in my typically junky studio).

shooting setup
The shooting setup.

In order to line up the baselines when all of the letters were sitting on a flat surface, the lowercase g needed to be moved forward considerably.

Close-up of the letters with some butterflies in place.

But when you're at just the right angle, everything lines up!

The camera's eye view gets the baselines of the letters aligned.

And finally, after much tweaking, attachment of butterflies, and bouncing of photons, here's the final result.

The Google Doodle for March 14, 2012.

Closing Thoughts

Yoshizawa built a bridge from the traditional craft to the modern art form, which is still evolving. Modern origami artists have embraced geometry, mathematics, even computers to realize their own creations, which seems to some to be just a bit shocking. After all, isn't origami about folding square sheets of paper, using just your hands and nothing more? But we must remember that Yoshizawa himself was an iconoclast of the traditional art. He used many shapes other than squares (triangles, rhombii). He used glue to join multi-part figures, and to create specialized laminated papers using the technique of back-coating. He created the technique of wet-folding, introducing water into shaping and entirely new papers into consideration. And he used technology when it served his artistic end. He famously advocated folding in mid-air, saying:

"Fold in the air. Folding on the table makes your paper dead. Folding in the air makes paper alive!...Fold softly, without hard creases."

And yet, in the 2009 documentary, Between the Folds, we see the master himself, not only folding on a table, but using a mallet to pound on the paper to create a sharp fold in the beak of a swan!

How do we reconcile these two images? It is simply that to Yoshizawa, technology, like the geometry that led him to his art, was and remained only a tool, to be wielded by the artist in service to the art. Geometry, mathematics, the "physics and biochemistry" claimed by Yoshizawa, the computational geometry of modern folders, are still nothing but tools; perhaps a bit more sophisticated than a wooden mallet and a table to fold upon, but always, in service to the art. And so, for this Google Doodle, I brought yet another tool into service: an industrial laser cutter, which I used both to cut out the rectangles used for each letter of the doodle and to mark the creases of the patterns onto the paper. But the folding itself was still done by hand, and, I hope, that the physical manipulation introduced, or at least, retained, a little bit of the "spirit in the paper."

And what about the butterflies in the doodle? This is one of Yoshizawa's earliest, yet most iconic designs. It is deceptive in its simplicity, but can express great subtlety in its shaping and attitude. The combination of simplicity and depth is part of the essence of origami, and is key to Yoshizawa's work and legacy.

"Geometry alone is not enough to portray human desires, expressions, aspirations, joys. We need more." — Akira Yoshizawa, 1988

Robert J. Lang, March, 2012

Not surprisingly, quite a few online sources picked up on the Doodle. Here's a partial listing: